TAMPA — Don't call it a "black play."
Yes, Stageworks Theatre's latest production, A Raisin in the Sun, chronicles the challenges of an African-American family in 1950s Chicago just before the dawn of the civil rights and women's movement. Yes, it was the first play written by a black woman to be produced on Broadway.
But to characterize it solely as a play about black people doesn't do it justice. And thankfully, Stageworks doesn't lose sight of Raisin's depth.
The remarkable script of playwright Lorraine Hansberry resonates 55 years after it debuted to critical raves on Broadway because while it spotlights the injustices of discrimination and oppression, it also touches on issues prevalent today, including marital discord, parenting, feminism, ambition, class, home ownership and even abortion.
While Hansberry's artistry is the production's biggest star, audiences will witness a number of quality performances under the guidance of passionate director Ron Bobb-Semple.
"I knew how I wanted this production to look, but I told the cast, you bring what you got and I'll meet you halfway," said Bobb-Semple, well-known in local theater circles.
Walter Lee and Ruth Younger, too poor to afford their own home, live in a rundown apartment with Walter Lee's mother, Lena, their young son, Travis, and Walter Lee's spirited 20-year-old sister Beneatha.
At the core of the play is what Bobb-Semple calls a collection of competing dreams centered on money and materialism.
Walter Lee, the protagonist, struggles to accept his role as a chauffeur for a wealthy, white businessman and believes he needs his own business to validate his manhood. Ruth struggles to keep her husband happy, and believes more money will keep the peace.
Beneatha dreams of finding her identity as a doctor but needs money to go to med school.
Lena wants her children to fulfill the dream of home ownership she and her late husband never achieved.
"Seem like God didn't see fit to give the black man nothing but dreams — but He did give us children to make them dreams seem worthwhile," says Mama, superbly portrayed by Cassandra Small.
The family awaits the arrival of a $10,000 insurance check, a benefit from the death of Lena's husband and Walter Lee and Beneatha's father. How Mama decides to spend the check serves as the catalyst of conflict for the whole production.
The performance of Small, a San Antonio, Texas, resident whose previous portrayals of Lena have earned awards, stands out over all others because of its authenticity.
She brings to mind virtually every strong-willed black mother ever portrayed on stage or screen, and a few moms I've known in my own life. She also proves convincing as the play's moral compass with a mix of warm wishes, wistful thinking and tough love.
The rest of the cast also turned in quality efforts. Brittney Necole Bellamy captures the intellectual and self-centered nature of Beneatha (a double meaning given that she believes everything is beneath her), Tia Jemison properly gives an understated presence to Ruth, and Federico Gordon Jr. steals scenes as Asagai, Beneatha's African immigrant suitor.
Don Laurin Johnson faces the most difficult role as Walter Lee, a character who evolves more than any other in the play. The challenge resulted in a somewhat uneven turn, but it certainly didn't lack energy.
A Raisin in the Sun offers a buffet of provocative emotions. Parents will identify with Mama, women will champion Beneatha's head-strong independence and men will empathize with Walter Lee's drive, albeit misguided.
Its unnerving treatment of oppression and discrimination will touch anyone who believes in fairness.
Hansberry died in 1964 at the age of 34, but her literary touch remains alive in this production.
Ernest Hooper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.